Legalize the Future……Please

Legalize the Future……Please

Mar 09, 2014.

What is taken for granted in most forms of transportation, weather protection, the potential for multiple riders, access to creature comforts and the ability to carry freight, is absent from virtually any current versions of human-powered and other minimum-impact vehicles? Tiny, 1HP electric-assist motors enable a very significant upgrade in the potential for rider satisfaction delivered by human-scale transport. If deployed artfully, these safe, comfortable and attractive little (ideally, shared) devices, can change our mobility paradigm and steer us back onto a sustainable path.

Currently, too many discussions of electric bikes, in this part of the world especially, focus entirely on the behavior of some restaurant deliverers who use these machines to help make it possible to get hot food to impatient customers, while it is still hot. The city has a host of enforcement mechanisms available to influence the various practices of highly-regulated businesses like restaurants. They have already instituted a bunch of regulations, putting big numbers and the names of the restaurants on deliverers backs for instance, and complaints against these hard-working, mostly immigrants, have plummeted. Regardless, the rapid pace of food delivery has nothing to do with our need to expand our transportation options in urban environments, clean up the air and rid our streets of oversized, overpowered and dangerous machines. Tabloid headlines ignore their importance in helping to improve the health and freedom of movement of numerous populations, including the elderly and the out-of-shape. Conflating these issues demolishes our ability to understand them and enjoy the benefits of this new technology. 

There is a very active effort, at the moment, to encourage the current electric bicycle-riding food deliverers to modify their behavior in order to lessen the criticism coming from pedestrians, magnified by the tabloids, but real nevertheless. At the same time, the City and State are being asked to fully legalize this important new form of transportation. A group, Coalition Urging Responsible Biking, CURB, is also carrying on a campaign to improve the most upsetting habits of some deliverers, to discourage riding on sidewalks,  crowding pedestrians and riding in an overly-aggressive manner. (You may go to if you care to endorse this effort). Posters are being made and distributed and bikes are being modified into a pedal-activated mode, putting them more into line with the current NYC law, which permits this modality but bans throttle-activated models, which are really more like mopeds. Pedal-activated electric-assist bikes are bikes.   

The recent bill in the NYS Senate will limit speeds to 20 MPH, as the Federal law requires, so the alleged 25-30 MPH models, if there are any, will need to be retired. The State can require approved vehicles, with less than the1 HP motors that are allowed, to have proper brakes, etc. too, maybe even to have to identify labels, permanently affixed to legal models and end the confusion over this issue.  

The city is concerned about enforcement, but the regulation of food delivers’ habits, and bicycle messengers’ before them, has been an ongoing concern for decades, long before bikes became modestly-electrified. The new, stricter regulations, improved education and peer pressure, along with closer relations with the restaurant industry, will do much to correct current problems. Meanwhile, there is no question that nobody should be riding bikes on sidewalks, no matter what. Also, biking so aggressively that it actually threatens pedestrians’ health and safety, should be treated seriously. Of course, in fairness, such a campaign to alter behaviors must include far more dangerous vehicles, from motorcycles to huge trucks too. The targeting of cyclists, riding the least dangerous vehicle, while ignoring potentially fatal maneuvers by far more hazardous vehicles, in the same space, obviously makes no sense.  

Amazon and eBay have just announced same-day delivery in NYC and some other cities, soon to be many more no doubt. We know that it will be impossible for an army of vans to further clog up NYC streets with pairs of deliverers heaving packages, of everything under the Sun, everywhere, at once. The brick and mortar universe has no choice but to join the party and seriously improve their own delivery services, in order to keep up with the online onslaught. This new tsunami of traffic can only be accomplished by a giant flotilla of cyclists, many of them soon wheeling new, creatively-designed evolutions of current models. Some of these vehicles will need to be helped along by electric-assist motors. We are leaving the ICE Age. The Internal Combustion Engine and its tendency to inflate the size and weight of our conveyances to historic heights, has reached, maybe even gone well beyond, its limits and is, as a sheet of ice, slowly receding. Happily, in its place, is a bunch of fauna and other earthly delights, especially in the form of some room to get around more easily, smoothly, quickly and safely. 

The best examples of this activity currently are pedicabs. Made very popular in South Asia and the Far East, they are only a tourist-gimmick here, not serious transportation, as they have been in some countries for a century. Without an electric-assist motor, carrying three passengers, as is the habit here, in places like Central Park, filled with long hills, makes this job incredibly difficult. The only issue is the fear of some, that an electric-assist motor would turn these colorful trikes into dangerous, deadly projectiles. Fortunately, the industry has already, informally, agreed to a very safe 10 MPH speed limit, to erase such fears from the picture, so there is no reason not to begin to use this needed and highly-appropriate technology today. One benefit is that It will create a huge number of new, good, green jobs, especially for women, who are largely precluded from the profession, due to the brute strength now needed to perform the task. Creative design is an important factor here too, as a tiny motor makes possible improved weather and collision-protection and the provision of a little heat and other amenities.

The standard design of “Safety” bicycles is about 120 years old. It has turned out to be a very durable configuration, but it has not advanced in many ways until the efficiency of the lithium-ion battery freed it from the tyranny of very heavy lead-acid versions. 90+% of the populace does not ride a bike, even once, in a given year. The primary reason, aside from dangerous highway-like roads, is that we have evolved a value system that renders physical effort, unless in a gym or athletic event, unpopular. We are accustomed to easing and the effort of working up a sweat pushing pedals is not a pleasant prospect for most. Yet, we know that everybody needs a certain amount of physical activity, sometimes called exercise, to maintain good health and vitality. Finding a way to accomplish that, in a pleasant way, while also fulfilling another universal need, to get from one place to another, is a terrific discovery.  

Electric-assist bikes bring freedom of choice, give you license to determine how much effort you want to expend, at that moment, into your personal transportation. We are accustomed to either/or situations. Once you have made your choice, you are either going to be responsible for your own motive power, or you are going to relinquish it to a motor. Ebikes that are truly pedal-able cycles, that work very well even without any motor assist, were very rare until quite recently, but are now widely available. What this means is that the user is able, from moment to moment, to evaluate their situation and determine how much energy they themselves want to provide and how much they prefer to gain from the motor. 

This decision is made by you, not the machine. This arrangement puts the human species, its needs and potential contributions, first. It takes the decision-making power away from the machine and it gives it back to the person operating it. This is revolutionary. It is paradoxical too. Because you give your energy to something, you are empowered. While some cyclists may prefer a purer form of muscle-powered biking, the other 90+% of the population in this State is currently being denied legal access to those devices that would best enable them to get some healthy exercise and have an easy, un-sweaty journey, at the same time. We are also being denied the opportunity to recover our will, our capacity to choose.

This is nuts. And it’s just not fair. It is a form of bullying, a system that allows resources according to what you already have. It rewards aggression instead of accomplishment and produces a flood of white noise that drowns out the music. The difference between being carried along and moving is profound. Combining the two is a new experience for most of us and more closely resembles the natural matrix within which we all find ourselves. It suggests the next step, where we are players of music instead of just listeners, designers and sewers of clothing instead of just wearers, makers of something besides supper. We’re getting closer to the moment when we find ourselves, as a survival mechanism, becoming Socratic skeptics, who have run out of patience with the pat answers and transparent myths that compel us to be true believers, when, what that really means, is shutting down your mind. Waking up our bodies, teaching ourselves to merge human energy with mechanical forces and harmonizing them could be one sure step towards re-booting and re-balancing our entire system. So what are we waiting for?